This past weekend—one day before the Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its final paper edition—I spoke to my father, Matt Graves, who has worked for daily newspapers for 40 years. He was stricken. He retired a few years ago but still writes occasionally for the Albany Times Union, where he spent two and a half decades on staff. He told me that given all the news lately, he'd been at the building the other day—and found himself imagining it empty. He was spooked. He'd also read a Time magazine story about the 10 big-city papers going under (or online-only) this year.
My dad is one of the lucky ones. He has nothing left to lose. He won the Red Smith Award twice, and he retired before it got truly ugly. The freelance income he gets now is paltry—he does it mostly to stay connected—and he's been crowing about going on Social Security next month, anyway.
But he is sad. He's worried for his friends and colleagues, but even more, he's sorry about the death of the environment he knew so well: the daily newsroom. An online newsroom might come about, but it will never have the catch-and-release of that evening deadline—the social life that engendered, the time for breathing and learning instead of just chasing and reporting and then chasing some more. The characters.
My dad's nickname in the newsroom was Deadline Dick. He never missed a deadline.
JG: You type with two fingers, don't you?
Let's move on to the pertinent information, shall we? Now we've established I'm a two-fingered journalist. And I'm old. I'm old, otherwise you wouldn't be talking to me.
All right. Let's go to the beginning.
My first job was as a reporter for the Troy Record, which was then two newspapers, a morning and an evening. You either worked for the morning or the afternoon.
They had two staffs?
Well, not completely different, a lot of the stuff was carried over. But they had two editors in the sports department, for instance. You wrote two different kinds of leads: An a.m. lead was a news lead, a p.m. lead was a feature lead. But that only lasted as two entities through the mid-'70s. Then they went to just a morning paper, which had a circulation of between 45,000 and 50,000. It now has a circulation of about 13,000. Pretty sad.
I don't think I ever visited you at work in Troy. I was 6 when you went to the Times Union, right? I still remember the orange lights of the press room. Is that still there?
Oh yeah. They just put a new press in there. They just spent $20 million or something on a new press, but this was before the economy went south.
What do they say is going to happen there now?
They've been without a contract for six or eight months. They're talking about a 20 percent reduction in expenses is what is necessary to keep things moving. They're not saying how that would be accomplished, but most people are interpreting that as a 20 percent staff drop, too.
We have been the most profitable newspaper in the Hearst chain for years. But that doesn't mean we're safe, either.
Remember that time you came to visit me when I was in my first job [at the Denton Record-Chronicle, in 1997]? I was still using a metal pica pole and making drawings to lay out the pages, and then the press people in the back room would print out the stories, coat the columns in wax by sending them through a waxing machine, and then if you wanted cuts made, they'd do it with an X-acto.
Yeah. You would point to a spot and say, here, cut it there, and that's how they would edit it, on the floor. And some guy would come by after you were done and sweep it up.
But when I first started, we were using hot metal! The letters would all be cast in hot metal and then cooled and placed into forms.
After the paper went out, they would disassemble the pages—after a few weeks or whatever. They would break down the frames—they were clamped together, to hold them together—they would unclamp the frames, take all the letters back out, melt them back down, and make more type.
When I started at the Times Union, I believe the guy told me they had 120 printers. Now they have two people—or one—on the floor. The typographical union was a very strong union, and they have pretty much gone the way of a lot of extinct animals.
It's very sad. It used to be a tremendous industry. It really was exciting. And trying to meet deadline on a daily basis was a great challenge and a lot of fun, but also very stressful.
People talk about the death of journalism. But to me it's like the death of the daily deadline. The way things work now, it's like print deadlines don't matter. Put a story in print and by the time it hits, you'll have to update it on the web.
Yeah, I have to write a blog now in addition to my game stories. I hate that. It's extra work, and I'm resistant to the computer to begin with. I guess I have to say I'm resentful of the fact that this generation is so consumed with getting their quick fix. Everyone wants to go online and be quick and get it done. The advantage newspapers used to have, they're not allowed to have anymore.
What do you consider your first great assignment?
That was when they sent me up to Saratoga racetrack to cover a horse on a daily basis. It was my first time covering the sport, and the horse's name was Secretariat. He had just won the Triple Crown and he arrived in Saratoga with great fanfare. I had to report on how much he ate, if he walked, everything.
What did he do? How was he?
He was great. Everybody wanted to be near him.
What was he like?
He was a horse. I asked him a lot of questions. He ignored me. And a lot of times he just pooped in my path.
No, it was very exciting to be around him because he was so famous. You don't often get to cover something where the main character can't speak, so it challenged your creative juices because you had to make the stories out of the people around him but also still keep him the center of attention.
And then I covered the World Series several times. I got mugged in Boston covering the Boston-Cincinnati series in 1975. I was crossing the street going back to the hotel, it was late at night on the very first rainout of World Series history, and some car pulled up and pinned me against another car, and the guy had a gun, and they put me in the back seat.
They drove me around and I pleaded for my life. I had my money in my pocket; I gave him my wallet, and when there wasn't any money in it, he got upset. And all of a sudden my memory came back to me and I said, oh, no, my money's over here, and then they let me go. Took me a few blocks away and dropped me off in an alley. And then the paper made me write a first-person story about it.
When was the story due?
The next day.
How much money did you lose?
I think it was 183 dollars. Luckily I got a hundred back on my homeowners' insurance, but I got nothing from the [paper] except a "Yeah, right, sure you did."
What I've loved about newsrooms are the characters. In Texas I worked next to a nearly deaf elderly receptionist who took calls all day from nearly deaf elderly callers. There was a white-haired Southern man who was full of real, actual wisdom. There was a big-haired middle-aged cops reporter who always wore stiletto heels, carried a gun in her purse, and once called me a communist.
But farther back, what was the scene like?
Oh god, you'd put the paper to bed and you'd go to the local watering holes until the middle of the night. And everyone smoked: It was disgusting.
But there was a lot more communication than there probably is now. People talked a lot about story ideas and about executing them. There were a lot of the stereotypical things like editors screaming about reporters. A lot of those things you saw in the movies really happened. But those guys, you also learned tremendous amounts from those people. Editors in those days were tremendously knowledgeable. Today there's not so much of that.
Newspapering seems to have become more of a profession.
Yeah. There's less teaching going on at newspapers now. We used to have seminars all the time—writing seminars, reporting workshops, all kinds of things on how to improve on different aspects of your job. It's pretty much a business now, and less of an art form.
Who was your first boss?
My first boss was a man named Jack "Peerless" McGrath, that's what everybody knew him by: Peerless. He was at that time the longest-standing sports editor in the country. He was the sweetest man. He called everybody kid, K-E-E-D.
Another guy, Tommy, you didn't want to get on his bad side. You could hear him all around the building. He was a screamer. Yip.
Copy boys used to run the copy from you to the editors, or from you to the composing room. You actually did hear people say, "Copy!," and then somebody would come flying. And a lot of those people would start at the bottom and become reporters.
We did have one tremendous character in Troy. We called him Broadway Abe. You could always find him walking up and down Broadway. He was the oldest copy boy in America, probably. He was in his 70s when I got there.
He weighed about 90 pounds and was about five foot three and had an incredible disdain for the Yankees, and it was just a circus waiting for him to explode. Whenever the Yankees would win, the guys would come in and start in on him and he'd just lose it and throw things at the teletype. When he was on the street, he was totally the opposite, this kind, sweet, old gentleman who'd kiss the ladies' hands. But when he was in his environment, he was the mad bomber of the Yankees.
Before there was a lot of technology, they used to announce the baseball scores out the window of the Troy Record out onto Broadway in Troy, and people would be down on the streets waiting for the guy to give the update. I guess he did some of that. You can imagine it was pretty colorful. You probably had to close the windows in most of the houses.
Blogs don't quite work that way, do they? What did they call you?
Deadline Dick. I always made deadline. Yeah.
Always? Every time?
Well, sometimes games would go overtime, overtime, overtime, and then you'd miss it. But otherwise, well, maybe once or twice. You forget a lot of the things you did.
How long is this here going to go on? Nobody's gonna want to read this.
Okay, Daddy. We're done. Thanks.
I'll call you later.